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One of the biggest sporting events of the past few months was the European Champions League Final, held at Wembley Stadium on Saturday 28 May, 2011. After months of pool and elimination matches, the two undisputed power clubs of world football faced off in the final.  

Manchester United, managed by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson for the past 24 years, had just won their 12th English Premier League title in the past 19 seasons.   

Their opponents, FC Barcelona had just won their 3rd consecutive La Liga title (the Spanish equivalent of the EPL) to make it 10 domestic league titles in the same 19 season span.     

Although Manchester United bill themselves as the world’s most popular football club, Barcelona held the upper hand in Europe with three Champions League titles since 1991/92 compared to Manchester United’s two titles in the same period.   

Manchester United boasted English football’s most valuable property, striker Wayne Rooney, whereas Barcelona’s squad contained Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, the top 3 place-getters in this year’s FIFA Balloon D’Or (the award for world footballer of the year) including the winner for the past two seasons, the incomparable Argentinean, Messi.   

The showdown between the two super-clubs was expected to be a closely fought battle of skill and tactics.     

The reality was somewhat different.     

Barcelona shredded their opponent. The match ended up being a clinic, with the 3-1 scoreline flattering a totally out-classed Manchester United.     

The key match statistics say it all:   

Man United
Shots on target
Time in possession
Corner kicks


These stats demonstrate an astonishingly huge gap between two teams that, on paper at least, appeared evenly matched before the match began.   

So did Barcelona achieve such superiority over a very formidable foe?   

Well it wasn’t money. Both clubs have very deep pockets.   

Manchester United generate the largest football-specific revenue of any team in the world (AUD$440 million) and Barcelona just over-took the New York Yankees to claim the #1 spot in Global Sports Salaries Survey’s 2010’s Highest Average Player Salary with each Barcelona player earning, on average, a whopping AUD$8 million (equivalent) per season.     

Football is now a multi-billion dollar global sport where players don’t just move clubs, they move countries in order to ply their trade in the best league that they can and maximise their earnings before their skills wane and their knees give way.     

The days of players having a long professional career with their local club at the top level are long gone … or are they?   

Let’s look at both clubs a bit more closely.   

Although each club had a squad chock full of superstars, the Spanish club was different in a very significant way. In their Champions League starting XI, Barcelona fielded 7 Spanish-qualified players compared to the 3 English-qualified players lining up in the Manchester United starting XI.     

And here’s where the real difference is uncovered; six of the Barcelona team (including the aforementioned Messi, Xavi and Iniesta) had been developed via the club’s youth academy (La Masia), compared to Manchester United’s one youth academy-developed player, Ryan Giggs, who is not even English.   

Barcelona’s foundation to ongoing success is found in the teaching of the La Masia academy. As Graham Hunter, writing about FC Barcelona earlier this year in The Age, stated:   

‘At (FC Barcelona) they believe it is more effective to teach raw talents a defined doctrine than buy brilliance every season or two and try to fuse different playing styles into a cohesive whole.’   

The critical component of the La Masia success for Barcelona is not just in the skills of the players that graduate from the academy (and what skills they have) but in their whole attitude to the game.   

To quote Hunter again ‘(the academy trainees) must play the 4-3-3 system, learn to cherish and use the ball well and must play with attacking flair’.     

As inspirational Barcelona captain Xavi says, ‘When you train La Masia as a kid there are phrases drummed into you which still flit through my head during matches 19 years later’.   

And there you have the reinforcement of the key principle that every highly successful current or former recruitment company owner knows – long term success comes through developing both the skills and the culture of committed team players.   

It’s a rocky road of high expectations, deep pockets and frequent disappointment when you rely too much on buying in ‘big billers’ (or even average billers) to meet the ‘I need more consultants’ pressure that most recruitment owners experience. These recruits might put some decent billings on the board but, more importantly, are they having the right impact on your team culture?   

Just imagine how much pressure professional football clubs feel when results aren’t going their way. Typically the passionate fans demand an open cheque book to recruit the latest ‘hot prospect’.     

Barcelona went through a very unsuccessful six year period between 1999 and 2006, but they stuck with their academy philosophy as a long term, sustainable way back to the top.   

Iniesta, Xavi and Messi arrived at the Barcelona La Masia academy when they were 11, 12 and 13, respectively.     

Each of these teenagers were in no way a sure bet for Barcelona, with Messi having the added challenge of moving from  Argentina, when most boys of his age would be intimidated enough dealing with the transition from primary school to high school in the same suburb.   

Yet on that Saturday night, two weeks ago, Barcelona’s commitment to growing its own skills and culture paid massive dividends.   

FC Barcelona not just won the match but in doing so set a new standard of play that must have daunted their Spanish and European opposition watching on and contemplating the 2011/12 season ahead.   

And with Lionel Messi’s 25th birthday still two weeks away, who knows what this champion team may achieve in the next few years.

Build or buy? What’s your long term plan for sustained success?

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Tom Murphy

Great article Ross. May I add, Lionel Messi, as a child in Argentina was told he would never play professional football as he was too small. Barcelona looked beyond this…

I agree that Barcelona's home grown talent is far greater than Man Utd's however I will say Man Utd would not have won the EPL nor managed to reach the final of the Champions League if it wasnt for their manager Sir Alex (As a liverpool fan I cant begin to tell you how hard it is to say this). If Sir Alex was managing either of the top 5 clubs in England he could have achieved the same if not more.

For me this poses another question, if the Barcelona's of the recruitment industry were to have talented leaders as well as talented recruiters, what could be achieved?
I interviewed a young recruiter with 7 months experience yesterday. I was astonished to hear he had 5 different managers in the 7 months of his short career so far. He shows all the signs of being a great talent yet the industry may lose him as a result of poor leadership and poor decisions being made at management level.


This article leaves out important points. Like how much Barcelona have spent the past few season on buying in players. Villa, Ibrahimovic, Henry, Mascherano,

Additionally, many of the 'homegrown' players were bought for large sums of money at age of 19 and 20. True development occurs at 16-18 years old.

Rob Howes

Hi Ross,

Nice article as always but you missed a key element!!!! I don’t know how many times I say in a day “CEO’s and GM’s drive the culture of the organisations”. Have a look into Joan Laporta and Pep Guardiola.

Joan Laporta could have hired ANYONE to manage Barca but he went for someone with the right style and attitude, not the most experienced or with the greatest management career. How often do organisations right at the top of their profession EVER hire completely inexperienced Senior Managers? This is all about Talent Management and succession planning and most importantly BELIEVING IN YOUR CULTURE. Appoint the smile, train the style.

When I was reading the article I immediately thought – yes growing your own is great but its cyclical. You think of Liverpool in the 70’s, Ajax (most importantly as Guardiola was managed by Johan Cruyff who was a product of the Ajax youth system and acknowledged as invented “total football”) in the 80’s, Manchester United in the 90’s, France’s national team in the 00’s and now Barca. All had teams based on a defined and supported youth system. And the most important group of people? The people who ran the clubs and believed in this methodology.

The BIG question is when Guardiola leaves Barca (and he will) will they be the same team? Can another manager have the same ethos and style and get the same out of the players? They’re possibly the greatest club side of all time and Messi likely to be the greatest ever play but every crew needs a captain. Also, when the players get old (or leave) to sustain the level, they buy in talent and break the cycle which and ‘re-build’ their squads. Patience goes out the window and there is no group of people more impatient than shareholders!

And on Sir Alex. Its widely agreed he won his 12th title with his worse ever squad. He reached the Champions League final without conceding a goal at home. He is without a shadow of a doubt the greatest football manager of all time. Why? Perhaps that’s something for another insight? The influence of managers.



Ben Coppin

Well in response to Anonymous above – Barca's Champion League Final starting 11 Cost $153.6M (Aus) in transfer fees. They only imported 5 players to the team as opposed to home grown talent(please note: one of those imports was Pique who came through Barca's youth system, before Ironically going to Utd and then back to Barca!!).
United on the other hand spent $230m (aus) on their champions league final team. Only one player came through their youth system (Ryan Giggs). So I think this gives you some idea of the strength Barca had invested in their youth policy – not on buying big from elsewhere. I understand they may have made some large signings in the past (ibrahimovic, etto etc), however these signings were more oftern than not so their competitors couldn't buy them – or Media signings as a display (much the same as Real Madrid etc..).

We can all learn a lot from Barca's attitude at managing their own talent pool properly. That takes a lot of guts and faith to do, however effective if done correctly.

Great Blog Ross – or should we start calling you 'Rossi' (as in Giuseppe)? Seeing as he looks like he is on the way to Barca now too!

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